zai nar pijiu ma? (where is the beer?)

this post will incorporate a few of the most notable experiences and realizations of this past week. it will be comprehensive in nature due to the fact that far too much time has passed since my last entry and i know how cranky my readers get when there is not a posting every hour of the day. so follows some adventures involving a party, teaching, my birthday, and some b.o.

it would only be logical to relay these tales in chronological order. in this vein, i will begin with the party that rocked the p.r.c like none other before (except of course the communist party . . . yes, you can laugh) which was hosted by none other than the nine of us foreign teachers. we had noticed a lack of, well, informal social gatherings (a.k.a. keggers) among the faculty and staff here at the northeast hope international school. seeing a need for such an event (philanthropic as we all are), we decided to plan a party that would bridge the cultural gap between the west and east by incorporating some western style party activities (wine, hanging out, beirut, making fools of ourselves) into the chinese framework of dumplings, baijiu, and a much more formal definition of a party. the formalities were difficult to overcome, as we were not aware that the hosts were supposed to make a speech at the beginning of the party to welcome the guests. it became quite obvious that our guests (who were surprisingly numerous and consisted of various teachers, administrators, and the camera guy for the school television studio with his camera) were noticeably uncomfortable and unsure of how to act at the party. us, being oblivious to the formality mentioned earlier, continued drinking and trying to socialize. an hour into the party and the feeling of the room growing ever so awkward, ben was notified by bossman that no one would drink or eat until someone made a speech welcoming the guests. this duty performed by ben, the guests rushed the food tables, wine bottles, and beer bottles in a veritable feeding frenzy of chinese proportions. the rest of the night was spent talking with our co-workers, playing beirut, and eating the mountains of dumplings that i had slaved away in the kitchen making (read: opened a bag of frozen dumplings and plopped them in the steamer). it was quite a sight to see 30/40 year old chinese women, usually at the forefront of self-proclaimed sobriety, chugging cups of beer after a dirty ping pong ball had landed in it, or grown chinese men hugging each other in jubilation over the win of a beirut game. it was a perfect mix of west, east, and a few hints of college thrown into the mix. with the party a success, we were urged to plan more throughout the year. as difficult as it may be for 9 twenty-somethings to plan a party, i'm sure we can manage. that leads me to the subject of teaching . . . you know, the whole reason i am here.

so i finally began teaching full-time last week. i know, finally time, right? well as some of you may know, i have been given the pleasurable job of teaching 200 fourth graders (10/11 year olds . . . 9/10 year olds to us due to the chinese custom of declaring the newborn 1 year old at birth). now, i have a great interest in children and have worked with children of various ages before. coming to china, i was expecting the children to be extremely well-behaved and respectful. well, i guess biology varies little with culture because these children were anything but well-behaved. anxious, excited, and hopeful, i entered my first classroom. i set up my power-point presentation that introduced myself and told of my expectations for the class. i then asked each of the students to stand up and share a little about themselves. with each student unable to tell me where they were from, how old they were, or what their english name was, i grew noticeably worried that some of my students had never had english before. my fears were realized when one student, obviously the "class helper" (a.k.a. the apple polisher), stood up and explained that about half of the class consisted of new students and that many of them had never learned english before. this frustration was only exacerbated by the fact that these students felt that it was only necessary to scream, yell, throw things at each other, and hit each other on the head with blunt instruments. my voice has only as of now recovered from that first day of yelling. growing red in the face, i realized that this called for drastic measures. the rest of each class was spent giving those students without english names suitable monikers. feeling slightly down-trodden, my spirits were raised when a short, liberally proportioned boy stood up and stated that his name was "buick". the brief moment of humor cleared my mind and made me realize that these were just little kids with short attention spans and that i just needed to focus my teaching on other areas and use different strategies. the next few days proved to be very successful. it is going to be a difficult and time-consuming endeavor to teach these children a language that they hold only a cursory knowledge of, but i have always enjoyed challenges. besides, they are so cute and they like me, so it can't be that difficult, right?

with some bubbling frustrations, my birthday dinner served as a much needed respite for us all, as it fell in the middle of the week. i was worried that my birthday was going to feel a little lonely without friends and family around, but my fellow foreign teachers and chinese co-workers proved me very wrong. besides the slough of mugs, knock-off louis vuitton wallets, more mugs, and a tie, my dinner was complete with a cake bought by the president of the school and a crown that i obediently wore throughout the duration of dinner. with my crown, i ruled with an iron fist by doling out orders of songs to be sung by karaoke to me by various members of my fellow diners. it had a feeling of any birthday i would have had at home with a necessary and welcome chinese flavor.

oh and by the way, the picture of the noodle soup is part of a traditional birthday dinner. the egg signifies that life is cyclical and that everything will turn out okay eventually as life come full-circle. the noodle in the broth is actually one continuous long noodle signifying a long life. i ate all of it with a little help from my fellow diners.

now speaking of chinese flavor, or more correctly, chinese funk, i have become the possessor of just that: the chinese funk. this fact became apparent to me a few weeks ago when i opened my laundry bag in readiness to do a load of laundry and i was almost blown off my feet by the smell of one particular shirt that i had worn to a club. even after washing this shirt, there were still stains which smelled of garlic, chili powder, and my own signature stench all rolled into one. i did not think much about this at the time, as i felt that it was a mere anomaly. well, the past few weeks have proven that my body has now been taken over by the smells and fragrances wrought by the ever-flavorful food that i eat here. i have never been that smelly of a person, nor has my smell really ever been offensive to me. i wear one shirt now and grow teary-eyed when i lift it thinking i can wear it again. i wear a pair of pajama pants for bed and in the morning i feel like i must wash them. the schtank is overwhelming, but i guess it is just one more part of adapting . . . smelling like those around you.

in the end, these are all just occasions in which you just have to say, "zai nar pijiu ma?" . . .

my head "yurts"

before i go into the "adventure" that was the inner mongolian grasslands, i will paint a picture of the night before as it is somewhat important to the full understanding of the story (somewhat, i say, but in reality it is merely a humorous story that cannot go untold).

so, a few weeks ago, we were told that three americans were coming with one of their teachers to tour the school and see what it was all about. we thought this was strange as the school is literally in the middle of nowhere and difficult to get from any major airport, but, as with anything here, there is little use in asking questions as nothing really makes sense. the day came and we were all to meet these american students in the school meeting room. walking into the room where they sat, we proceeded to get to know these foreigners a little better: where were they from? what school did they go to? why the hell were they here in inner mongolia? the answers came back normal enough. they were from chicago and went to some high school in the suburbs. they were all cousins and one of their fathers had attended school with the headmaster of our school. questions answered, we bid them adieu. flash forward a few hours . . .

we all arrive at a famed mongolian restaurant downtown. the nine of us foreign teachers, the three students, bossman, and mr. wu (another high-ranking administrator) all sat down to what was going to be a delicious mongolian dinner. the nine of us were affected with a surge of happiness at the realization that we were eating out and could avoid the horrors of the dining hall back at school. orders of pijiu and baijiu dutifully ordered, we settled in for a long, enjoyable night of food, revelry, and much too much karaoke singing. as mentioned in earlier posts, any good chinese dinner begins, consists of, and ends with a succession of toasts that render the diner incapacitated at the end of the night. we expected no different from this night. it seemed, however, that our underage friends hadn't gotten the memo as they seemed to be taking "sips" (more of a guzzle) between our "sips". one of the boys in particular was making great strides in attempting to drink the restaurant dry by himself. we decided to ignore this obvious faux pas in hopes that our newcomer to the world of bachinallia would soon learn his mistake. this soon became impossible, however, as the decibel level of his voice grew to deafening levels as did his spastic laughter. one of our group decided it was necessary to kindly prod him to slow down. her kind suggestion made, she was met with a response of, "i will f-ing kill you" from the young reveler. obviously meant to be a joke, the comment was met with complete silence from the table as everyone was trying to ascertain what had happened within the past few seconds; a scene of glazed eyes filled with surprise and soy sauce stained lips gaping with confusion. apologies came from all around and the incident was soon all but forgotten. amidst pijiu inspired singing and baijiu laced laughter, a glance to the corner revealed a lone figure drowning in his embarrassment. all attempts to forget what had happened were foiled, as the sight of this lone boy put an edge on the rest of the night. this story is perhaps not as humorous to the reader as to me, but i felt it a necessary story to document, nonetheless. now, flash forward again about 3 hours . . .

after a 4am wake up and an icy cold shower i crawled to the bus that was to convey us to the fabled inner mongolian grasslands. amidst a pounding sinus headache from a cold that i had gotten a few days before (and still have), the lurching of the bus caused by a seemingly drunk bus driver, incessant bumps caused by irregularly paved roads, and the nose-piercing aroma of baijiu permeating the air originating from dirty-hand-soiled seats, i dreamed of the scene i was soon to behold. horses running free, tall grasses, yak skin covered yurts, and kind, welcoming mongolian folk were what i laboriously envisioned during the 3 hour trek.

the bus sputtered to a stop and we all filed out. to the left, cows grazing and swimming in a large pond. to the right, a cluster of yurts. beyond that, seemingly endless grasslands and rolling hills. walking to the encampment, i realized that this was anything but an authentic mongolian yurt camp. the yurts had foundations, they were covered with colorful canvas and nylon, there were karaoke systems, running water, electricity. my disappointment was allayed, however, when i glanced once again at the pristine grasslands beyond. after a short walk through the camp, a few of us decided to trek through the grass to the hills a good distance ahead. any description of this beautiful scene that i could attempt would be inadequate in the least. the pictures will do that job for me.

im sure it comes as no surprise to any of you that i am now a true mountain climber having scaled the formidable hills of inner mongolia with only a digital camera in my pocket and a sparkle in my eye. i'm the real thing. in this spirit, i descended the "mountain" in hopes of a lunch befitting a true mountain climber. entering the yurt, we were all seated around two different tables; one supposedly for baijiu drinkers and the other for pijiu drinkers. still feeling the effects of the night before as well as the dehydration of the day, i opted for the baijiu table so that i could sneak water into my glass. after a few toasts, happily sober and beginning to feel hydrated, i began to notice that my dining partners were approaching a state i like to call "housed". the rest of the meal was abundant with drunken affirmations and random bursts of uncontrollable laughter, while i hastily took shots of my "baijiu/water" so as not to be found out. this drunkeness was perhaps fueled even further by the fact that our lunch contained fatty-greased-up peices (read: slabs) of sheep meat surrounded by sheep entrail soup, sheep's blood sausage, and other unmentionable parts of a sheep's anatomy. i politely ate from the dishes that looked the least organ-like. i am not sure exactly what i ate, but that is the charm of this place - you never know what you are putting in your body or what part of the body it is from. the yurt soon resounded with giggles of drunken delight as i sat and watched the scene: diana getting kissed and wu-ed by mr. wu, mike and jacob going shot for shot with the busdriver (yes, the busdriver), and bossman insisting on everyone taking more shots despite protests from some citing lesson plans that had to be made.

lunch soon declined into a dull, hungover roar and some expressed an interest in horseback riding. ready for another "adventure" i shot out of the yurt, put my shoes back on, and hopped onto the nearest horse. the ride was tourist-fare to say the least, but my guide, noticing that i had ridden a horse before, let me ride alone. mike proceeded to flirt with his guide in broken chinese and somehow managed to purchase the vest off his back. he now had a piece of mongolia and a piece of his man. having sufficiently made our usual mark as crazy tourists, we sombered back to the bus only to find the bus driver passed out and unresponsive. unable to enter the bus, adam climbed through the driver's window and unlocked the door. a few minutes of fear were all but forgotten when a back-up busdriver appeared from the grass and our lives, saved. reclining in my sweat-stained seat, i dozed off to dream once more of my own idyllic grasslands and the many adventures . . . and quasi-adventures . . . that await me.

nose to the grindstone

so it is true. my brief respite from work has ended as has the paid "vacation" that i had expected to continue for months. it is not all too easy to adapt to a life of toil after being wined, dined, and left to your own devices. i had quite grown accustomed to waking for my morning cold shower, being greeted by my insect friends at every step, and having the daily question of whether i should "get some things done around the apartment" or "do a few errands in the city" (neither of which, mind you, were really pressing, as it was merely a self-employed ruse to make myself feel as if i had important tasks to complete). well, as i write, i sit at my desk in the office of the primary school english teachers . . .

the past three days have been exhausting with, well, let me explain. due to the fact that the primary school does not begin until august 21 (and that the textbooks to be used have not been received from the U.S. presently), the task of lesson planning is out of the question. "so what does a foreign english teacher do if there are no lessons to be planned or taught," you ask? well, it is grueling work sitting for hours on end making myself look busy with an iPod in ears, a book in lap, and an average of 6 IM windows on the computer screen. no easy task, let me tell you. you also may ask the question of why i am required to sit in said office for hours on end with nothing to do. to which i respond that not only my mind, but my body as well is owned by this school (as per previous blog entry)and whenever i am told to sell it, i must oblige. it seems that practicality, time management, and efficiency are lost on these free-wheeling chinese. "what is wrong with that", you ask? "nothing", i answer. practicality has always been lost on me, anyway. besides, it gives me time to make lists of those "things i need to get done around the apartment" and the "errands i need to run in the city" . . . it may take me a few more days to find the perfect pen and piece of paper . . .

"penny" & "judy": chinese english teachers

my relationships in china

my brief hiatus from posting may have come as a severe disappointment to many of you, as i am sure that you have been sitting at your computers; eyes wide with eager anticipation; fingers poised above the keyboard just waiting and hoping for the next update from your friend frolicking in the fields of inner mongolia. well, to satiate each of your appetites, here is another post touching on some of the relationships i have sown with my lovely apartment, a little mongolian boy, the approximately 10,438 insects and amphibians currently residing in my apartment, and the communist party secretary (i.e. the head of the communist party) of inner mongolia, respectively.

i have purposely neglected to outline the special relationship with my apartment in previous posts, as i was not yet able to pinpoint each of the idiosyncrasies that eternally bind us. the past few weeks have . . . well . . . put a strain on our bond. it all began with a refrigerator that would not refrigerate, a microwave that would not microwave, and a stove that would not sto . . . cook. this bump in the road was quickly remedied when i realized that all of the circuits had blown in the kitchen (granted this was many days after moving in). the next test of our marital bliss came when i was sitting down to enjoy a nice DVD after a long day of "recruiting" (read: sitting on my ass). i popped the disc in and ran back to the couch with remote in hand ready to press play and dive right in to someone else's world. i was naive to think that i could escape my own world and my relationship with my apartment, as the DVD player so selfishly decided to be broken on that day, neglecting my needs entirely. DVD player returned and new one acquired, this little bump was flattened. no relationship exists without constant annoyances and frustrations that one must just learn to live with and compromise as i have realized during the past three weeks. unfaltering cold showers, the lack of running water here and there, the occasional power outage, and the pungent odor of sewage seeping in through the drains are all just aspects of my significant other's personality that i will just have to learn to live with . . . and in.

someday last week i arrived at the infamous recruiting office ready for a day filled with reading, sitting, reading, and . . . sitting. i was pleasantly surprised to be accosted by a little mongolian boy who's mother also works in the office. our friendship began around the morning hour of 10:00 am with the requisite tickle and fake fighting so necessary to a friendship of this kind (i.e. one in which neither party can effectively communicate with one another). after lunch and "wu shui" (the chinese siesta), our friendship progressed to taking digital pictures of each other making faces (see pictures). this went on for most of the rest of the afternoon. from that day on i have had a friend to distract me from the rigors of work in the office. we now venture as far as the mall on the second floor of the building running through knock-off designer clothes, chinese tea sets, and jade lions. it is a very reciprocal friendship.

it came as no surprise to me that inner mongolia had the occasional insect or other small animal that would cross one's path from time to time. i had been warned about swarms of lady bugs and the need to tape-off all the windows in the apartment when the swarms came in september. well, it isn't september and i have not seen a single lady bug, but i have seen thousands upon thousands of beetles, flies (fruit, black, man-eating), praying mantises, grasshoppers, and frogs roaming the campus. when i say campus, i mean EVERY inch of the campus. inside the dining hall, inside the classrooms, inside my apartment, on my face. nowhere is safe from these buzzing, flying, hopping beasts. i could always resort to the chinese method of pest removal (i.e. throwing the insects against walls), but i have never been able to bring myself to bring about the premature death of any living organism if it was within my power to do so. so i can constantly be seen carrying handfuls of insects from my apartment to the grass outside the complex. i'm sure my neighbors think i am a few ants short of an anthill as i can be heard whispering to the insects, "go now, you are free", but i guess they thought i was a freak anyway - me with my blonde hair and light skin and everything.

not that i like to "blow my own horn" or anything, but i am kind of a big deal . . . me along with the other foreign teachers here. i have become accustomed to the incessant stares and whispering experienced as soon as i step foot outside of my apartment door and lasting the entire duration of said excursion. my rock star status has afforded me some very interesting introductions and conversations. one such introduction came the other day when we (the foreign teachers) were requested to meet the secretary of the communist party for the autonomous region of inner mongolia and the secretary of agriculture - both very important men in the province. after shaking hands and watching a highly propagandistic film about the school (all in chinese, of course), we took photos with the two men, thus ending our brief meeting. as i watched the camera crews and school officials hurrying after the two men as they headed on a tour of the campus, i though to myself how much i am growing to love china. it is not without its bumps and bruises along the way, but what relationship is? i love it all. thus is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.